L.A. Times Calls California Speed Trap Law “Absurd” and Urges Reform

California's "absurd" speed law means more deaths on L.A. roads.  Palisades Drive car crash photo by Peter Duke via Flickr Creative Commons
California's "absurd" speed law means more deaths on L.A. roads. Palisades Drive car crash photo by Peter Duke via Flickr Creative Commons

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This story sponsored by Los Angeles Metro to remind readers of traffic pattern changes resulting from Purple Line Construction. Unless noted in the story, Metro is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

This week the Los Angeles Times weighed in with a couple of strong articles on the deadly scofflaw speeding that plagues Southern California streets.

Longtime SBLA readers may already be aware of the California speed trap law that forces cities into a deadly vicious cycle of speeding leading to increased speed limits, as well as the pro-speeding interests (California Highway Patrol, Teamsters, Auto Club, and trucking industry) who undermine reform efforts, including the recent bill by Assemblymember Laura Friedman.

Earlier this week Laura Nelson wrote an excellent piece that both outlines the technical and legal issues and humanizes L.A.’s speeding problem. Nelson tells the story of Northridge’s Zelzah Avenue, where the city of L.A. has increased the speed limit from 35 mph to 45 mph in recent years, despite neighbor’s concerns over multiple traffic deaths and the “frequent sounds of screeching tires as drivers narrowly avoided collisions.”

From Nelson’s article:

Zelzah’s growing speed limits epitomize the catch-22 that Los Angeles officials have faced for decades on dozens of miles of major city streets: Raise the speed limit, or lose the ability to write most speeding tickets.

The dilemma stems from a decades-old California law designed to protect drivers from speed traps, which requires cities to post speed limits that reflect the natural speed of traffic. If the limit is too low, or if it is years out of date, the police can’t use radar guns or other electronic devices to write speeding tickets there.

Drivers had grown accustomed to speeding with no citations, police said. Higher average speeds forced the city to raise the speed limit to resume ticketing.

Today, the L.A. Times editorial board called for changing the outdated state law that forces cities to raise speed limits. The editorial calls current state law “absurd” and opines firmly on the side of safety and needed reform:

…a decades-old state law essentially requires cities to set speed limits based on how fast people are already driving, regardless of whether that speed is safe. The law was passed to prevent cities from setting speed traps, or arbitrarily low speed limits aimed at sticking drivers with pricey tickets.

This is an absurd way to govern a public space. It lets faster-than-average drivers dictate the law, rather than basing the law on what is best for all street users. It doesn’t take into account the community’s broader needs for the street, including making the speed of travel safer …

The next logical step would be to change the state law that bars cities from setting speed limits for safe travel, rather than just fast travel.

[…]

Certainly, lower speed limits alone won’t make the streets safer. There needs to be public education about the risks of speed, as well as traffic enforcement in speed-prone corridors. Streets also need to be engineered for safety, and that often means redesigning roadways and intersection to make drivers slow down.

Granted, that’s not always popular with drivers who are used to ruling the road. But the streets don’t belong just to drivers. They belong to everyone.

To their credit, the city of Los Angeles Transportation Department (LADOT) and Police Department (LAPD) are doing a lot to dig themselves out of a serious backlog that has hampered ticketing speeder scofflaws. LADOT spokesperson Oliver Hou confirms that, despite recent speed limit changes approved, there are about 200 miles still needing current speed surveys. Hou stated that another batch of speed limit updates is expected this year.

As the Times stresses, safe streets for everyone will need enforcement and education and engineering.

Kudos to the Times for getting this important message out.

  • Stephen Yang

    Doesn’t the law consider the frequency of accidents in the determination of speed limits? If it doesn’t, perhaps it should.

  • michael macdonald

    Currently, no – the frequency and severity of collisions has no bearing on the method used to determine speed limits.

    Consideration of crash rates was the original concept behind Assemblymember Friedman’s 2363 (https://cal.streetsblog.org/2018/02/23/bill-could-make-it-easier-for-cities-to-lower-speed-limits/), which the legislature would be wise to pass.

  • QuestionQue

    Has the new owner of the Los Angeles Times changed the composition of the editorial board?

  • When I read the title of this article, I knew this was an 85th percentile operating speed issue. While not state law in every state, many DOTs and municipalities still use the 85th percentile speed as policy to determine speed limits. It’s an outdated practice designed to de-criminalize speeding and reduce conflicts between slow and fast moving vehicles.

    Like NACTO recommends, target speeds should be proactively set regardless of observed speeds. Allowing the fastest, most reckless drivers to determine speed limits is insane.

  • Kevin Withers

    “the 85th percentile speed as policy to determine speed limits. It’s an outdated practice ”

    Outdated? Sounds like a personal opinion.

  • Bob P

    Collision history can be used as a consideration for a 5mph reduction from the observed 85th percentile speed.

  • Sorry, the 85th percentile isn’t the problem, street design is. When roads are designed for 55 MPH but signed at 35, it shouldn’t be surprising to find the 85th percentile at 45. The solution isn’t to put up new signs and make it legal to enforce a lower limit, but rather to redesign the streets until the 85th percentile matches the desired speed.

  • KJ

    A lot/ most of our streets in California are 50-100+ years old, yet most drivers then weren’t going the speeds they are now; one or two generations ago people drove slower and the posted speeds were often lower. A speed of 20 mph can again become the norm within city boundaries. Street design does help slow traffic, but we need to commit to slower speeds, post them, and then enforce it. I support changing the law to allow cities to lower their speed limits.

  • Culiacanazo

    Deleted for threatening language

  • Culiacanazo

    It all boils down to revenue! Sell something if you so desperately need money! Stop robbing people of their money! Damn government

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A big part of the L.A. City Department of Transportation’s Vision Zero effort is to rein in speeding. Speeding is among the primary causes of traffic deaths and fatalities. Speeding makes other problems worse. In addition to in-roadway interventions including painted curb extensions, LADOT is installing 150 speed feedback signs on Vision Zero High Injury Network’s 40 priority […]